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Interpol Says There Really Are Dark Web Rhino Horn Traffickers

One of the dark web’s most pervasive myths may have an element of truth behind it.

by Joseph Cox
Jun 15 2017, 4:30pm

Image: Jonathan Pledger/Shutterstock

The dark web is home to several lingering myths: so-called red rooms where visitors can watch gruesome murders; sites offering assassins for hire; and poachers using hidden websites to assist with their wildlife trafficking.

There has been little to no substantial proof for any of those, bar some very dedicated scams. But on Wednesday, Interpol claimed it had found "clear evidence" criminals are using the dark web to sell illicit wildlife products from endangered species.

"Conducted between December 2016 and April 2017, the research found 21 advertisements, some dating back to 2015, offering rhino horn products, ivory and tiger parts," according to a press release on Interpol's website.

The research was funded by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the US Department of State and the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), according to the release.

"The good news is that researchers found very limited amounts of products available for sale on the [dark web]. The bad news is that INTERPOL researchers found adverts selling parts of some of the most critically endangered species on earth on one of the most difficult to regulate Internet platforms," Tania McCrea-Steele, IFAW Global Wildlife Cybercrime Project Lead, said in a statement.

Got a tip? You can reach this reporter securely on Signal at +44 20 8133 5190, or their email is joseph.cox@vice.com.

But the trade, if legitimate, is certainly not booming. In an accompanying infographic, Interpol writes that might be because of "Trust issues due to a lack of publicly recorded sales and feedback on marketplaces." That implies that some of these alleged listings were not on real, functional dark web markets, such as AlphaBay. Since the original Silk Road, these markets have incorporated review and rating systems so customers can have more confidence in the seller, whether that person is selling drugs, weapons, or stolen data.

The markets also typically use an escrow system, where the site itself will hold onto any cryptocurrency until the buyer confirms they have received their item. Without these basic tenants of the dark web trade, it's not surprising that wildlife products have only seem a small amount of alleged exposure.

But Emily Wilson, director of analysis at dark web monitoring firm Terbium Labs, claims she has seen such items on dark web markets.

"I do see these kinds of products popping up from time to time," she told Motherboard in a Twitter direct message. "You'll see something like rhino horn—whole or powder—pop up on a major market," she added. At the moment, a vendor is claiming to sell a "100% real ivory case," according to Wilson.

Being sure of the veracity of those listings is still tricky, though.

"The ones that are active right now are fairly new and have limited listed sales so far, and not all markets track product sales. I think it's fair to assume that at least some of the listings are legitimate," Wilson added.

Back in 2012, law enforcement busted several people who had been selling rhino horns over Facebook. One researcher recently said that alleged endangered wildlife vendors are usually met with "vitriol" from other members of the dark web community.

All the same, Interpol is keen on highlighting this issue, even if it is miniscule compared to the broader wildlife trade.

"We simply can't ignore the opportunities the [dark web] offers to criminals wanting to peddle wildlife in secret," said Ms McCrea-Steele in the statement.

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